Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Justice driven by robots -- Suicidal Vet who called "confidential" helpline being prosecuted based on call

A 45-year old homeless, suicidal veteran, Sean Duvall, called a confidential Veterans Affairs helpline in June 2011. He got help: he now has an apartment, a job and seeing a counselor and a psychiatrist. But based on what he said in that call, The Washington Post reports on its front page on Feb. 21, 2012, federal prosecutors have indicted him on firearms charges and he is facing 40 years in federal prison. The Washington Post reports he is charged with "manufacturing and possessing a homemade gun," but does not explain how what Duvall said or did. There is no report that Duvall threatened anyone. The implication is that after Duvall's call, responders found him in possession of a firearm that he may have been planning to use to commit suicide.

The U.S. Attorney submitted papers that say, according to the Washington Post, "as much as we, as a society, appreciate the efforts and sacrifices made by war veterans such as Duvall, their status as veterans does not make them above the law. The law must be applied with equal force to all in this country, and Duvall must face the pending charges just as anybody else would."

(1) A "confidential" help-line that leads a veteran to a federal indictment is not confidential. "As a society" -- the one for whom the U.S. Attorney claims to speak -- a promise of help if you call in confidence is a pretty important promise. I hesitate to call it a "sacred" promise, but offering help to those who are ashamed, in trouble and desperate is an important tool of a compassionate society. As a society we have long recognized the confidential nature of a confession to clergy or to a doctor that leads to help.

That a government confidential help line will lead a desperate veteran to prison is a shocking fraud and a betrayal of trust. The government should obey its own pledge of confidentiality as faithfully it would expect any person who has confidential information to protect it. Breaching government protected confidentialities is, in many instances, actually a criminal offense. It is worth noting that the Obama Administration has been prosecuting more "leaks" of confidential information than all previous administrations combined according to the National Security Archive, the Washington Post reported on Feb. 15.

(2) This story illustrates the deeply flawed understanding of justice held by many prosecutors: all offenses must be punished. This inflexible approach to upholding the inviolable majesty of law is in many respects the same as that of gangs believe they must respond to every sign of disrespect with the beating or death of the offender. This is the same nonsensical rigidity that we find when a traditional, patriarchal family determines that a woman must be killed for dishonoring the family name.

Justice is not the prosecution of all offenders. No part of our society works that way. For as long as there has been an America, most actions that technically were crimes have not been prosecuted. Whether in the low crime 1950s, the high crime 1970s, or the low crime period we are now enjoying, most crimes are not prosecuted.

More importantly, no crime should be prosecuted unless there is a determination that the sanction and punishment will serve the public need for justice.

Who is clamoring for the punishment of a once suicidal homeless veteran who actually got the help he needed and called for? No one, except the robotically programmed drivers of the prosecution machine.

This is prosecution unmoored from compassion, from practicality, indeed from reason itself.

The U.S. Attorney is dropping the charges if Mr. Duvall agrees to counseling, The Washington Post reported on Feb. 28, 2012! Veterans were outraged at this prosecution, and about a dozen veterans came to his court hearing to support him.

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